Zaatar adds Middle Eastern spice to Jewish music

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John Erlich had always loved music. But it took belly dancing to whet his appetite for Jewish music.

"As a teenager I was a fairly serious jazz composer in Sacramento with my own group," said the Oakland resident, a member of the Mizrahi band Za'atar.

"But then my sister studied belly dancing in Israel and I thought, 'Wow, this is Jewish music!' I didn't realize how hip Jewish music could be."

Two years ago, Erlich and other musicians formed Za'atar to explore and promote Mizrahi music, which originated with the Jews from Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The band takes its name from the word for a Mideast spice used for cooking and healing.

Za'atar, which has performed nearly two dozen times in the Bay Area, will play next at 8 p.m. Sunday at Ashkenaz in Berkeley.

The group is made up of six musicians of American and Israeli descent in their 20s and 30s with backgrounds in jazz, klezmer and Israeli rock.

When they play together, however, they use traditional Mizrahi instruments such as Erlich's oud, an 11-stringed instrument shaped like a lute but without frets. The oud is traditionally plucked with a bird feather, but Erlich uses a 5-inch-long nylon plectrum.

"We have an eclectic mixture of people and instruments, but we play very traditional music," said Ron Elkayam of Berkeley, another band member.

"It's fun to play and the music is so joyous. It gives an incredible sense of spirituality because the music allows us to express our heritage in a unique way."

Elkayam plays percussion, including the darbuka, a Mideast hand drum with a goatskin cover and an hourglass-shaped base made of clay, and the riqq, an Arabic tambourine in a small wooden frame with symbols on it.

Elkayam also expresses his heritage with an olive-oil can, which carries the rhythm in the Yemenite song "Eshal Elohai."

During certain periods of Muslim rule in Yemen, authorities forbade Jews from playing instruments, so they adapted by playing on household objects such as olive-oil cans; the practice became part of traditional Mizrahi music.

The instruments, most of which are from Turkey, provide an authentic flavor to the upbeat music. Since very little of Mizrahi music has been transcribed, the band members collect recordings by Israeli artists and learn them by ear.

Mideast music has its own system of scales and tones. That means Mizrahi music cannot be reproduced on instruments like the guitar and the synthesizer, which are limited to the Western scale.

"It's similar to notating jazz because you can represent the music on a page, but what's actually played is different," Erlich said. "You can know the underlying feel of the music by looking at the notes. And like in jazz, improvisation is a major part of our music."

Although the songs come from a range of countries including Turkey, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and Israel, they are sung in Hebrew by Za'atar's four vocalists — Elkayam, Erlich, flutist Amit Bleiweiss and bass guitarist Daniel Ratner.

The vocalists are accompanied by Ittai Shaked on the violin and Scott Armel on the baglama, a long-necked Turkish lute.

Most of the songs are piyuttim, devotional songs written by ancient rabbis and cantors and set to Arabic folk tunes.

For performances, band members wear kippot and traditional white Moroccan robes.

In April, the band released a self-titled promotional CD. After the 200 copies sold out, another 500 were produced. The CD, which costs $10, is available at Sunday's performance and at Afikomen in Berkeley.

Next weekend, Za'atar will head south to perform at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach and the International Sephardic Arts Festival at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

In October, the band will return to Los Angeles for the World Sacred Music Festival at the Bahai Center, where it will be paired with Kan Zaman, a classical Arabic ensemble.

Elkayam is hoping Za'atar's presence at the multicultural festival will expand itslisteners beyond the Bay Area's Jewish community.

"Our main goal is to have fun and share our music, but we would love to have more Arabic listeners. This music is a way to build bridges with Arab communities. We take war between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East for granted in the 20th century, but that has not always been the case," Elkayam said.

"Our music can be very nostalgic for both Jews and Arabs. It breaks down barriers and provides a common language so Arabs can feel connected to Jews."

Za'atar will play at 8 p.m. Sunday at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley. "A Middle East Summer's Night" will also feature the Tabu Bellydance Troupe and oud player Claude Palmer. Tickets: $8 at the door. Information: (510) 204-9437.